2002 has been a great year for gaming. It’s nearing the end, but there are still awesome new titles to be played. The fact that Splinter Cell was released later in Europe than in the US has annoyed a lot of people, including me, but now it’s finally out. Splinter Cell has been in development for quite a while, and the final product is nothing short of spectacular.
The story takes place two years in the future, in a time of political trouble. The NSA created a new sub-agency called Third Echelon, which sends out highly trained soldiers, also called Splinter Cells (person who breaks terrorist cells). These people are given the freedom to do pretty much what they want to in terms of for instance violence. You’ll need to be stealthy, because if you’re caught you shouldn’t expect help from the government.
The political troubles are centered on the republic of Georgia, but the missions will take you all over the globe, trying to prevent major military actions.
A few years ago I started liking shadows a lot. I fell in love with the Thief games, and drooled over Doom 3 screenshots. Shadows are essential in Splinter Cell, and the modified Unreal engine is very much capable of impressing. In almost ever aspect imaginable Splinter Cell looks terrific. The XBOX does have its limitations, which is evident when looking at the number of “jaggies” in certain situations. With a hint of anti-aliasing the overall visuals would be calmer, but the framerate would obviously suffer. In its current state the framerate is almost always fluid, even at times when all logic would tell otherwise.
By default you view Sam in a third-person perspective, and simply moving the right stick on the gamepad around circles the camera around Sam. Unlike many not-so-great games the camera is almost never a problem. If you press B, to un-holster your weapon the camera shifts from the third-person position, to a “shoulder cam” of sorts. This particular feature adds realism, because you see basically what Sam would see.
The modeling, animating and texturing is all top-notch, and that statement includes both the characters and the environments. It is truly impressive to see Sam pull off his moves, not just because of the gameplay innovations, but also because the engine gets to show what it’s capable of.
Speaking of which, the incredible shadows is one of the features that have made a lot of people turn their heads, and stare. I’m sure many of you have seen pathetically poor recreations of lighting effects and shadows in games, but on the other side of the ladder we have Splinter Cell to show how it’s supposed to be done; realistically.
I don’t want to confuse too many of you, but in 3d engine world you have a small number of shadowing techniques, and two of the most popular ones are lightmaps and stencil buffered shadows. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and if you’ve played a few relatively new games you’re very likely to have seen both in action. UbiSoft chose to use some specific XBOX features like shadow buffering, because it is cast in real-time, and interacts with the environment. I personally hope a lot more companies will try this, because after seeing this in action you’ll easily see how other games could’ve looked a lot better.
Sounds / Music:
Tough spies need dark voices. UbiSoft chose Michael Ironside, who over the past 25 years has played in a long list of movies. I can’t imagine a voice that would be better suited, but the entire cast of voices is awesome and appropriate to the in-game characters. The musical score is also terrific, and changes according to the situation. Sometimes the music seemed at a too high volume when you were trying to listen to a dialogue, but mostly it works great. It doesn’t have an enormous track selection, but it keeps the adrenaline pumping, and that’s what matters.
Also, the Dolby ProLogic encoded audio is great from a technical standpoint, so if a character in front of you is speaking to you, the sound will change according to where you’re facing. It really is fun when you’re sitting in a shadow, praying the nearby guard won’t spot you. You sit there, carefully listening for footsteps
When designing certain games you have to make a lot of hard decisions. For instance, some games try to be as realistic as possible, but at some point the fun-factor for the average gamer will suffer. Making Splinter Cell a “perfect” replica of real-world espionage would most likely end up being frustrating, and not a whole lot of fun to play. What I’m saying is that in Splinter Cell the developers took the coolest sides of espionage and added some fun things. I’ll explain.
Sam Fisher is capable of doing a lot more than the stereotypical spies who just run around shooting. Sam of course has weapons, but they’re by far not as important as many other games. Your pistol is often used as a gadget, just as the lock pick. Moving around in stealth is optimal, and each of the levels is designed so that you can get past quietly. In fact, you can finish the game with only one person in your body count, but I doubt a lot will try that! Speaking of weapons, Sam has a very neat one which not only has a default fire, but with which you can fire very special kinds of ammo. If you’re wondering what’s going on around a corner in the distance, but don’t feel like sneaking around, then you can just load up the camera ammo, fire it through the weapon, and manually move the camera around, zooming in and out and switching on night- / thermal vision when needed. That weapon can also fire plenty of other cool things, but it would take way too long to explain it all in this review. Keep in mind that it is very important to conserve ammunition, because running out will most likely make you restart the entire mission, or at an early save-location.
Sam can not only do the normal spy moves like climb fences, etc, but he can also look around corners, un-holster his gun and pick out any naughty guards. He can jump, grab pipes and move around on them, while putting his feet up if stealth is more important than speed. He can jump off walls, grab characters, force them to open locked doors for him, interrogate them for important information, or just knock them out and carry them instead.
I briefly mentioned the different vision modes earlier. Besides the normal vision you can turn on night vision, which as you would expect, enables you to see in the dark. The screen gets fairly pixelated, but not as greenish as in other games and movies. You can also turn on the thermal vision, where you can see warmth. This is very useful in certain situations, because you can see guards move around inside a room you’re not actually in. It works best up close, but doesn’t show the difference between dark and bright areas, so be careful.
The missions are generally about going from the start of the level, into some sort of heavily guarded house, extracting something / hacking something / finding someone, and exiting. There are plenty of surprises and plot-twists to be entertained by, and the level design is mostly very realistic and fun to play in.
When you finish a mission, the overall plot advances in the form of cut-scenes. You get to see a TV broadcast, which gives everything a nice “real-world” context, and a cut-scene that is more related to your mission.
Some have argued that the artificial intelligence isn’t especially good, or realistic, but that’s when you need to consider the fun-factor. Do we really want guards to be able to see you from far away, or do you want to have fun playing around with the guards, throwing objects to distract them and sneaking past them. There are several difficulty modes to choose from, so if you really WANT to struggle with more realistic enemies then that’s a possibility. Why the guards are unable to see the four “lamps” that are on Sam’s suit is beyond me, but let’s not nitpick too much...
Some parts of Splinter Cell are hard, and sometimes frustratingly hard. Many other games are equally hard, and if you just see a difficult area as a challenge then you’ll probably be fine. Learning the controls does take a little while, but when you learn how logical it is, playing the rest of the game should be a great experience. There is no multiplayer part of the game, which is a bit of shame, but through XBOX Live you can download new missions, so if you do manage to finish this linear game then you can just get some new ones. There are rumors that the XBOX Live content will get released on DVD at some point, so those who are unable to use the online service will get to play even more.
It’s always great to see a hyped game do as well as Splinter Cell. It delivers in almost every way imaginable, by offering awesome graphics, audio and gameplay. You can tell the developers have spent a long time polishing it, and it paid off. The suspense when playing the game is largely unrivaled, and that’s coming from someone who has tried an action game or two (or played action games ever since he was born, with a keyboard and a mouse in his hands, probably -Editor.). During the review period I asked myself what game I would keep if aliens came and took all other, and I would in fact choose Splinter Cell.